Who Was Walt Whitman?

Life, Career and Reputation
Whitman was born at West Hills on Long Island, on May 31, 1819. The paternal side of the family was of New England Puritan stock, and maternal of Dutch and Quaker background. His father, Walter Whitman Senior, was a carpenter, small farmer and builder. Somewhat discontented and radical, he passed on his own respect and love for Jefferson, Paine and Wright. Whitman was more fond of his mother Lousic Velsor Whitman who was simple and scarcely literate. She did not understand his poetry but had a responsive heart and rare ability to appreciate people. He absorbed from his father democratic radicalism and from his mother the Quaker habit of listening for the inner voice of his soul.

When Whitman was four, the family moved to Brooklyn which was then a small city. Whitman went to school when he was eleven. After working in a number of printing offices during his boyhood he became a teacher at the age of seventeen. After teaching at several Long Island schools for a few years, he left the profession altogether and turned to journalism for a career. As a contributor, as reporter and editor, he was associated with a large number of New York and Brooklyn journals and newspapers. He rose to be the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle when he was only 27. He edited the paper for two years (1846-47) but lost position because his liberal beliefs enraged the conservation owners of that newspaper. He accepted a job on a New Orleans newspaper called Crescent and set out with his fourteen years old brother Jeff. It was a very long journey: it afforded him an opportunity to see vast stretches and varied regions of his country: its magnificence and great promise, its mountains, rivers, plains, lakes and cities. His stay in New Orleans was brief and his entire trip lasted four months. He came back to Brooklyn stimulated with his vision of America and her destiny. Whitman remained single throughout his life; and there is no truth in the myth created by his earlier biographers that he fell in love with a proud woman of New Orleans whom he could not marry.

Details of Whitman’s life from the New Orleans trip in 1849 to the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855 are scanty. He started a paper called The Freeman and edited it for about a year; worked with his father as a carpenter, and sold houses after building them. Whitman’s spare time was devoted to unlimited reading of novels, poetry, philosophy, politics as well as classics, which he absorbed in a completely uncritical fashion. He had a passion for Homer, Shakespeare and the Bible. Of all the writers one of the most important who influenced him was Emerson. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil” he said. According to his brother, Whitman frequented the libraries in New York or wandered by the seashore, fishing or reciting poetry. Although he published second rate stories and conventional poems in journals and papers before 1855, he recorded in note books from 1847 onward impressions and thoughts which foreshadowed Leaves of Grass. There are also poetical experiments which are groping towards the style of Leaves of Grass. In early 1850.’s he turned to lecturing and wrote a large number of lectures which are on the same theme.

Leaves of Grass appeared on July 4, 1855. This first edition consisting of ninety five pages had a preface and twelve untitled poems. Among the poems those ultimately called ‘Song of Myself, ‘The Sleepers’, “I Sing the Body Electric”, ‘There was a child Went Forth’. The title page did not disclose the author’s name, but the front piece showed Whitman in his broad brimmed felt hat and workman’s shirt. Of the 800 copies which were printed only a few were sold. The masses for whom the book was written paid no attention at all. Reviews in the press were generally hostile. Typical was the Boston Intelligent statement that Leaves of Grass was a heterogeneous mass of bombast, egotism, vulgarity, and nonsense—the author should be kicked from all decent society as below the level of the brute. He must be some escaped lunatic raving a pitiable delirium. The book was certainly unusual for the readers who were used to measured elegant and moral verses. Whitman had sent copies of the book to the leading figures of the day. Many, like John Greenleaf Whittier cast their copies into the fire. But he got an extraordinary appreciation from Ralph Waldo Emerson who sent him on 21st July, 1855 the following letter:
Dear Sir,

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass”. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand, I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said in comparably well; as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion, but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits namely fortifying and encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.

R.W. Emerson.
Emerson was the most distinguished man of letters of his times. Whitman was naturally elated at this lavish praise. Whitman also published anonymous reviews of his poetry, but Leaves of Grass did not sell even at half price.

In order to exploit Emerson’s praise, Whitman hurriedly published a second edition of the Leaves of Grass in 1856. In the edition Whitman not only printed Emerson’s letter without his consent but extracted the sentence. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” and stamped it together with Emerson’s name on its pine. There were twenty new poems, the best of them being ‘Sun-Down Poem’ (later called, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’) and ‘Poem of the Road’ later called ‘Song of the Open Road’. After the poems, this edition also contained a flattering reply to Emerson’s letter. The unauthorized use to his private letter and the showy reply must have shocked and annoyed Emerson.

The third edition was printed in 1860 in Boston, where Whitman found a more favourable attitude to his poetry. Emerson in a long stroll attempted to persuade him to omit the sex poems from the Leaves of Grass but Whitman did not agree. The third edition is the most impressive of the three published. Whitman tried to integrate the poems into an epic that embraced the whole of life and death. There were 122 new poems. The most important of the groups of poems (he called them “clusters”) were ‘Enfant’s d’Adam’ (later Children of Adam), poems of the body and sex, and Calamus, the poems of friendship closely associated with the first in intense sensuality of imagery. The greatest new single poem to appear was ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’. This poem which is now universally admired as elegant and harmonious was once bitterly criticized by the Cinicinnati Commercial which shows the hospitality to Whitman because of the limited and prejudiced view of the critics of the times. ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ was first published in excellent literature. The Cincinnati Commercial commented:

And it is into the gentle garden of the Muses the unclean cub of the wilderness, Walt Whitman has been suffered to intrude, trampling with his vulgar and prefane hoofs among the delicate flowers which bloom there and soiling the spotless white of its fair column with lines of stupid and meaningless twaddle……….We had hoped that the small reception accorded to his first performance had deterred Mr. Whitman from fresh trespasses in the realms of literature. Several years had passed away, his worse than worthless book had returned to his native mud. But we grieve to say that he revived last week, and although somewhat changed, very little for the better. We do not find so much that is offensive, but find a vast amount of irreclaimable drivel and inexplicable nonsense.

Obviously Whitman was half-a-century ahead of his time.

The third edition is different from the earlier two editions. First, there is a trend towards shorter, more intensive poems. Contrary to the mood of transcendental assurance and optimism of the first two editions, the dominant mood of the new poems in the third edition is that of doubt and despondency. Death and suffering are real and concrete in these poems while they sound mere abstractions in earlier poems like ‘Song of Myself”.

The poet is increasingly aware of human limitations.

Civil War broke out in America in 1861. Whitman did not enlist as a soldier. But when his brother George, a lieutenant in Union Army, was listed as wounded in Virginia in 1862, he went to find him. On his way home after finding his brother, he stopped at Washington, D.C. and was shocked to see how the suffering of the great numbers of the wounded was intensified by neglect. He obtained a minor position with the Government which kept him busy only a few hours a day and spent the rest of his time tending the ill and maimed soldiers, dressing their wounds, writing letters for them. He read aloud to them to while away the tedious hours, brought them tobacco and icecream and in general cheered them with his sympathetic presence. Out of his sobering experiences during the war, Whitman drew new substance for his poetry. In 1865 he published some of his finest humanitarian poems, in the collection ‘Drum Taps’. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April, 1865, he wrote ‘When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d ‘which is one of the finest elegies in English. The fourth edition published in 1867 had seventy five poems which included. ‘Drum Taps’ and its companion poems. Whitman’s major interest was to record war experience of himself and the nation and honour great personality emerging from that war.

Whitman published in 1871 two important works, ‘Democratic Vistas’ and the fifth edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’. These were 83 new poems in fifth edition, ‘Passage to India”, being the finest.

In January of 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke. After the death of his mother he retired to Camden, New Jersey, where he lived for almost twenty years. He published three more editions of ‘Leaves of Grass’ in 1886, 1887, 1889 and was working on the ninth edition when he died in 1892. The last edition is called ‘The Death Bed Edition’. Although Whitman added a considerable number of poems after 1871, he did not produce any poems of great power.

Favourable comments on Whitman came from his friends Edward Carpenter, John Burroughs, and Horace Traubel. They looked upon the poet as seer, apostle, emphasizing his themes of democracy, mysticism, nature and science. Those who criticized Whitman, objected to ‘Leaves of Grass’ saying that it was derogatory to religious and moral standards, it was irresponsible in political thinking, and it lacked unity, form, rhythm, metre and musicality, injustice has been done to Whitman by both his admirers and detractors Instead of closely examining the poems, critics have presented impassioned, sometimes hysterical defences and protests based on individual critics, concepts of what should generally be in a poem and how it should be presented. In order to be fair to Whitman, we should read the poems closely without any preconceived notions, we should see what the poet wishes to do in a poem and whether he succeeds or not in doing what he has set out to do.

Whitman’s Prose Works on Poetry

Besides ‘Leaves of Grass’ the only book of poems which Whitman produced, though in various editions, he wrote several prose pieces of poetry such as ‘Preface’( 1855), ‘Democratic Vistas’ (1871), (1872) and (1876) and ‘A Backward Glance over Travelled Roads’ (1818), aesthetic theory. The main ideas of these works are introduced below:

Preface 1855

The preface of the first edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ presents Whitman’s full conception of the poet in 1855—his personality and values, his subject matter, and his method of composition.

Like other writers of the romantic tradition, Whitman felt that the personality of the poet and the poem he creates cannot be separated. ‘All the beauty of a poem’, he wrote, ‘Comes from beautiful blood and beautiful brain’. In order to create great poems, the poet must be virtuous. A great poet has an open personality with candour and spiritual prudence as his greatest virtues. Besides, he has independence and self-esteem, love and generosity. He is a common man but a man with uncommon insight, intuition, and self-realisation which makes him a model, leader and seer.

The poet is an infatigable champion of liberty which he serves, first by keeping the memories of the great heroes alive in the hearts of the people, and second by teaching them pride in being themselves. As a priest of man’s divinity, he celebrates nothing higher than man. He is concerned with the percentage and accepts the laws of science.

Whitman emphasizes the nationalistic role of the poet themes in the first few paragraphs. In three respects Whitman considered America to furnish unprecedently superior for poetry : its people, its geographical features, and its form of government . Unlike the spirit of other countries, that of America, according to Whitman, is indicated most in her common people; therefore, the poet must present adequate pictures of their manners, speech, dress, self esteem, their love for freedom, mainly tenderness and elegance of their soul. He should also express American geography – the vast land, the rivers, lakes and natural life of America. The poet is not concerned with objects and situations, characters and events as such : he treats their spiritual significance, for its is the duty of the poet to develop the soul of the nation.
The poet should be natural in expression and form : the rules and ornaments of his poetry should be determined solely by his subject matter. A poet cannot make his poems beautiful by adding “gaggery and gilt” (i.e. elegance of style) : his expression should be perfectly natural. He should aim at fidelity to nature, life and reality.

Democratic Vistas, 1871

The basic arguments of Democratic Vistas are that a democratic literature is needed to provide the people with archetypal models of character and behaviour, and thus educate them for the genuinely democratic society of the future. The Renaissance poet was expected to create models for the education of the prince. Whitman’s poet creates models for the instructions of common people. Whitman believes that democracy shall be stabilized if the character and personality of common people are improved.

Whitman’s concept of ideal democracy is based on the reconciliation of two contradictory, “unyielding principles” : first adhesiveness or the love that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades , and fraternizing all ; second personalism or individuality which is the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself, “his identity.” The unlimited growth of individuals is one of the principles on which the success of democracy depends.

Whitman complains that literature has never recognized and appreciated people in masse. The American poets have followed the foreign poetic models about lords and ladies in courts and castles. The great poets, Shakespeare included, asserts Whitman, “are poisonous to the idea of the pride to common people, the life blood of democracy.” It is the duty of the American poet to represent the voiceless but never erect and active, providing underlying will and typical aspiration of the land which has gone unrepresented so far.

Besides glorifying the aggregate, Whitman expects the American poets to foster ‘personalism’ by creating a model of American personality for the people to follow. Oriental and feudal civilizations created their own ideals adjusted to their own feudal standards. The American land is to represent average people—the working men and working women—in his poems but he is to show in them “the elements of courageous and lofty manhood” which are the same from the days of Homer down to modern times. Whitman himself saw in the “divine average” of America the virtues of the traditional aristocratic hero: physical strength and adventurous spirit and fearlessness, well begotten manhood and the courage of conviction largeness of intellect and knowledge and unsophisticated conscience. But in democratic literature, such a heroic person is to be shown not doing an extraordinary job; he is to be presented as leading his daily life well and from there soaring to spiritual heights.

Since religion elevates democracy, the poet has to inculcate a moral element and conscience into the heroic common man. The poet should present the universe as it has been revealed by science, freeing poetry from superstition and fables. The atmosphere of the democratic poems should be modern.

Giving Whitman’s Poetry a Chance

Whitman’s poetry takes time to do its work upon you. Read it without any preconceptions about what poetry is or does. In reading it, observe the range of subject matter and tone of Whitman’s poems. If his poetic style is unconventional, find out if he uses any conventional poetic devices. Observe the nature and effect of Whitman’s “catalogue” technique as in section 15 and 33 of “Song of Myself”. Study Whitman’s diction and his skilful shifts in the level of diction. See if Whitman’s best poetry is also didactic as his prose is. Lastly, ask yourself when Whitman is at his best since he is so uneven.

Written by Lucas Beaumont

Generalist. Wikipedia contributor. Elementary school teacher from Saskatchewan, Canada.

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